Plus, tips from experts about how to trace an item's history and determine its value.
tabletop with antique paintings and serveware
Credit: Svetlana Levin / Getty Images

If you like to collect antiques, then it's essential to understand the importance of provenance. "Provenance is the history of ownership and documentation of either purchased or acquired pieces," explains Shay Oron, owner of Heirlooms Antiques & Art in New York City. "An antique's provenance can add substantial value, as it can attribute ownership in the past to a famous or important historical figure. It can also add authenticity if it was purchased from a reputable antique dealer or gallery."

Not only can provenance determine the authenticity of an antique, but it can also tell you a lot about its history. "Provenance can reveal where an antique was made, who purchased or sold the item, and its location at a given point in time," explains Chantal O'Sullivan, owner of O' Sullivan Antiques in New York City and Dublin, Ireland. "A good chain of provenance can give you a glimpse at the movement of objects through different homes and collections over perhaps hundreds of years."

Curious about how much value provenance adds to an antique, as well as how to find it? We asked three antique experts to share their insight, and here's what they had to say.

Understand how provenance affects the value of your antiques.

Oren says the value of an antique is affected greatly by provenance. "For example, items belonging to a famous celebrity can fetch incredibly higher prices than the items might be worth at regular retail value," she explains. However, O'Sullivan says that provenance alone can't determine the total value of an object. "The overall value is related to a variety of factors, including rarity, quality, condition, and age," she adds. "Provenance is just the icing on the cake!"

Ask for an antique's provenance when you purchase it.

While there are many different ways to discover an antique's provenance, O'Sullivan says the best place to start is asking the person or place you got it from. "The first thing to do when you purchase or inherit an antique is to ask the dealer, gallery, or family member for any information they may have," she explains. "Gather as much information as you can. If the piece has been in your family for a generation or two, then ask relatives. Even the tiniest bit of information can set you off on the right track."

Carefully examine your antique.

According to our experts, an antique's appearance can reveal a lot about its provenance. "Many objects have signs of previous ownership on them, in engraved coats of arms, crests, or initials," explains John Ward, head of the silver and vertu department at Sotheby's in New York City. "Particularly with coats of arms, which often have the shields of a specific husband and wife, it lets you identify not only the family but even the generation that owned an object."

Additionally, O'Sullivan recommends thoroughly inspecting an item from top to bottom to for look for signs of provenance. "Examine the edges of drawers and under chair seats for maker's marks often stamped discreetly onto the wood," she says. "You wouldn't believe the amount of information you can glean from a storage label or framer's label."

Sift through historical records and receipts.

Since the archives of various dealers are increasingly being scanned and posted online, Ward says tracking down a receipt of an antique's sale—and verifying its provenance—is easier than ever. "Sometimes, the family even has them," he says. If it's an heirloom item, O'Sullivan suggests scouring any household accounts or records of invoice for the estate, since they often contain information about commissions and purchases. "If you have any anecdotal evidence that a piece was in a significant house or collection, then you can also try searching the archives for that property," she says.

Photographs can help, if you have them.

When all else fails, you can always turn to old photographs for help determining an antique's provenance. "Photographs can also put a piece in a specific place at a specific time, however there tends to be very little photographic material for pieces from the 19th century or earlier," O' Sullivan explains.


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